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Swollen Lymph Nodes: When do they indicate something serious?

Lymph nodes are a part of the lymphatic system of human bodies. They protect human bodies from harmful germs and infections just like tonsils, spleen, and adenoids.

Lymph nodes have a round, bean-like shape. They are present around the neck, under the arms, and between the thigh and torso creases. Many times, they can be felt as tiny bumps due to swelling.

When there is an infection or tumor in the body, lymph nodes become swollen at that point.

Swelling reduces after the infection is cured. Not all diseases cause swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes medications and cancer can cause swollen lymph nodes. So you should consult the doctor when the swollen lymph nodes last more than 10 days. Also, if the swelling increases leading to pain, fever, sore throat, or other complications, you must visit your doctor.

The swollen lymph node is one of the indications of infections, cancer, or autoimmune disorders. The area of the swelling has to be given serious consideration. For example, if it is around the neck, it can be a result of upper respiratory tract infection.

What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes have lymphocytes (immune cells) in them. Lymphocytes attack viruses, bacteria and other things that make you sick. When you are fighting off harmful bacteria, virus or other germs, our body produces more of these immune cells — this causes the swelling.

Your lymph nodes encounter all kinds of germs, therefore, they get swollen for many reasons. Generally, it is something that is comparatively easy to treat, like:

● A bacterial infection such as skin infection, an ear infection or infected tooth

● A virus like cold

Though not common but, swollen lymph nodes can be a more serious illness. They can include:

1. Problem with immune system, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

2. Tuberculosis (TB), an infection that usually affects the lungs

3. Some types of cancer, including:

● Leukemia (blood cancer)

● Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system)

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Symptoms of Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are present throughout the body. They are a part of the lymphatic system. Most of the lymph nodes are concentrated at the neck and head region. If you find swollen lymph nodes in the neck, head, groin, or armpits for more than ten days, it must be treated.

Swollen lymph node also shows these symptoms:

● Pain

● Tenderness in the lymph nodes

● Increase in swelling size as days pass by.

● Fever

● Night sweats

● Weight loss

● Running nose

● Sore throat.

Diagnosis of Swollen Lymph Nodes

It is important to note that swollen lymph nodes are not a disease, but a symptom. The diagnosis helps in identifying the reasons for the swelling. Your doctor may perform a physical exam and check your medical history for swollen lymph nodes for the reasons like,

● Pain or tenderness when touched

● Location of the nodes to detect any disease specific to that body part

● Size of the lymph nodes

● To check if they are joint or move together (matting)

● To check if they are hard or rubbery

Many a time, swollen lymph nodes can be a reaction to medications like the anti-seizure medication Phenytoin. Your doctor would analyze your current medications as well.

In serious cases, when swollen lymph nodes enlarge without any apparent reason, the doctor would suggest going through further tests like a blood test, biopsy, or imaging scans. This is usually done when the patient shows no signs of cold, flu, skin infection.

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Treatment of Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes return to their normal size after the infection subsides. Treatment for the swollen lymph node depends on the other factors that have caused the inflammation. The general treatment methods include:

● Medications to relieve pain or inflammation may be prescribed to reduce the pain and swelling.

● When there is a bacterial infection, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics. It will take seven-ten days for the lymph nodes to become normal again.

● Immune system disorder – autoimmune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis requires medication which will vary depending on the severity of the disease.

● If the infection is caused by a virus, it might limit on its own and even subside. In certain cases, there might be a need for antiviral medication.

Cancer – Almost all types of cancer cause swelling in the lymph nodes. Thus the treatment method will vary for each type of cancer like chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. When do swollen lymph nodes indicate something serious?

In most cases, swollen lymph nodes are usual and cure on their own. However, certain cases might be an indication of something more serious. You must visit a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

● If you have hard, painful nodes that are fixed to the skin and grow rapidly.

● If the lymph nodes are more than one inch in diameter.

● If the lymph nodes make your skin red or inflamed.

● If the nodes drain pus or other substances.

● If you face night sweats, weight loss, fatigue, difficulty in breathing, and long-lasting fever.

● If you have swollen nodes near your collarbone or your lower neck (these can be a sign of cancer).

2. How can you find a cancerous lymph node?

Lymph node biopsy will be required to diagnose a cancerous node.

3. How long does it take for swollen lymph nodes in the neck to go away?

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are very common because of viral infections, irritations, abscess, or upper respiratory infection. The swelling will reduce gradually from 2-10 days. If the swelling does not go away after ten days, you must consult a doctor.

4. Can stress cause lymph nodes to swell?

No, there is no link between stress and swollen glands. Stress is the common term used to refer to the pressure exerted inside the body by external agents.

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